Wed, 14 Jun 2006

South Dakota. Thing I like about the States is it’s just like a bigger, sped-up version of Canada. None of this mincing around with funny-talking waiters and mystifying exotic cuisine like you get in foreign countries. We might not have “chicken-fried steak” on the menu back home in Saskatchewan – at least, it’s not the universal staple that it is down here – but you can figure it out pretty easy. The iced tea might be unsweetened, the currency might be confusingly monochromatic, but basically cruising through the Dakotas is like cruising through the Canadian Prairies. There’s even angry white guys on the radio call-in show, griping about them durn Indians gettin’ all them tax breaks.

Back when they were stitching our crazy country together, John A. MacDonald and the rest of them were deeply concerned that the enormous distances from coast to coast would discourage the formation of a Canadian identity, and that folks in the West would naturally be drawn closer to their nearer neighbours south of the 49th parallel, rather than their distant cousins in Ontario and Quebec. Canadians still spend a lot of time griping about whether or not Canada is a “real” country – frankly, I’m not sure it is – but you have to give the Fathers of Confederation credit, they’ve managed to mass-hypnotise us into accepting Canada’s improbable east-west axis. For example, Banff is about eight hours from Saskatoon. The Black Hills are a little further, maybe ten hours. Considering that it’s about the same distance, you’d think folks from Saskatchewan would come down here for camping and hiking and what-not almost as often as they’d go to Banff. Especially since the Black Hills are kinda awesome. Maybe it’s just that I’m bored from innumerable journeys across the Canadian Rockies, but it’s nice to drive by majestic river canyons and granite peaks that I haven’t seen a hundred times before. Spearfish and Deadwood are kitschy tourist towns, just like Banff, but they’re simply – how do I put this – better. Yet somehow South Dakota, despite its equal proximity and general awesomeness, seems like a distant, remote vacation site, whereas Alberta feels about as remote as our backyard.

Yesterday we were in Wall, South Dakota. It’s just a tiny town on the edge of the Badlands, but the highways are plastered with billboards for a hundred miles in every direction advertising something called Wall Drugs. Once a modest drugstore, Wall Drugs somehow expanded over a half-century into a western-themed, city-block-sized shopping mall and cornpone emporium, full to bursting with fiberglass dinosaurs and jackalopes, life-sized models of Billy the Kid and Wild Bill, and stuffed animals dressed up in western clothes. I thought it was terrific. We squandered the morning there, then drove through the Badlands, which were majestic and much bigger than I’d expected. Right now I’m in Hot Springs, South Dakota, a pretty generic small town that’s conveniently situated for tomorrow’s big push to Cheyenne, Denver, and Santa Fe.

Sun, 18 Jun 2006

Santa Fe. Father’s Day. I ditched my dad for a couple hours, left him reading the New Mexico papers and sipping coffee in the hotel café, while I wandered around downtown Santa Fe. The old part of the city reminds me a lot of Vancouver’s Gastown – a beautiful neighbourhood marred by herds of tchotchke-buying tourists. But once you get just outside downtown, where the herds are thinner, you can spend hours walking around looking at the old adobe buildings, skipping in and out of museums and art galleries. What’s neat about Santa Fe is it’s built close to the ground, with hardly any buildings topping two stories – I guess because it’s difficult to build skyscrapers out of mud bricks. So when you get up even moderately high, like on the foothills that lead up to the green mountains that ring the city, the whole place is spread out beneath you, clinging to the scrubby hillsides like some kind of Martian termite colony.

Unfortunately, our hotel is out on the highway, which is much like any crowded six-lane highway running through a mid-size American town, except the gas stations and megastores are plastered with fake adobe and southwestern decorations. I’m not complaining, it’s got a certain charm, too.

Before anyone accuses me of heartlessness I should mention that I took my dad out for Father’s Day dinner at the most expensive restaurant I’ve ever visited. I’m still not sure how to comport myself when I find myself in an expensive restaurant. Your instinct is to try and compensate for your obvious yokeldom by overtipping the valets and splurging on the priciest items on the menu. I imagine this is how expensive restaurants stay in business. Maybe it would be better for consumers if people acted on their first impulse, which is to glance at the menu, spit one’s seven-dollar iced coffee all over one’s Van Halen concert tee, and storm right the hell out of there.

Tue, 20 Jun 2006

Mesa Verde. To answer the first and most obvious question, yes, in Utah hotel rooms they put a Book of Mormon along with the Gideon’s Bible in the bedside table.

This morning we were at Mesa Verde in southwestern Colorado, to wander among cliff dwellings built by Ancestral Pueblo Peoples a millennium ago. They used to call the builders Anasazi, which means “Ancient Ones” in the Navajo language; but the Pueblo folk, who abandoned the mesa about eight hundred years ago and settled down in New Mexico, are offended at having their ancestors identified by a Navajo word. So now instead of Anasazi cliff dwellings they are to be referred to as Ancestral Pueblo Peoples cliff dwellings, which doesn’t convey quite the same romance.

The mesa rises about 3000 feet above the flatland, which makes for some extraordinary panoramas. Usually when you go up a mountain there are smaller mountains impeding your view of the horizon. As you drive up the side of Mesa Verde you can see clear across the open prairie. This made my father nervous. After listening to him yelp every time we took a curve faster than 25 mph, I finally had to ask him nicely to please stop looking out the window. Dad was too out of breath to take a tour of the cliff dwellings, which involves squeezing through narrow fissures and crawling up wooden ladders. But I managed to drive to an accessible point overlooking a cliff dwelling, so he could at least gaze at it from a distance and see what the fuss is about.

I’m at the library in Monticello, Utah. The twelve-year-old kid next to me is browsing girls in bikinis on MySpace, periodically glancing over his shoulder to make sure the librarian isn’t watching him. We’ll be in Vegas in a couple nights, watching David Copperfield at the MGM Grand.

Sat, 24 Jun 2006

Las Vegas, Salt Lake City. Well, we’re in Salt Lake, a handsome little city nestled among the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains. The natives are absurdly, even sinisterly friendly. Tomorrow morning my dad and I are going to attend a broadcast of Music And The Spoken Word, a weekly radio program featuring the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Then the next few days are just driving, driving, driving, to get back to Canada. I had mapped out a scenic route taking us by the Craters of the Moon in Idaho, and Glacier National Park on the Montana-Alberta border, but my dad claims he’s all scenery-ed out. So we’re gonna skip it and take the interstate straight up to Calgary. Truthfully I’m feeling kind of tired, too. I’ve had enough of breathtaking scenery. There’s so fucking much of it down here, the Americans don’t even feel the need to enclose most of it in national parks. They just push an interstate through and let the tourists gawk as they whiz by at seventy-five miles an hour.

Las Vegas was pretty good. Jenn & Kurt had advised me before I left that the motel we were booked into, a few blocks from the edge of the strip, was ridiculously overpriced. We could get a room in one of the less fashionable hotels on the strip for less than half as much. All the way from North Dakota to Nevada I intended to seek out a better hotel and change our reservation, but I had few opportunities to access the internet, and I couldn’t be bothered. So we stayed in the Best Western as originally planned. I figured the place must have something going for it to be so pricy – fancy décor, or a space-aged kidney-shaped pool with palm trees. But in fact, there was nothing to justify the price except its proximity to the airport and a steady supply of easily gulled tourists like me & my father. It was one of the least impressive motels on our journey. (The one here in Salt Lake is pretty nice.)

We went to David Copperfield at the MGM Grand the first night we were in town, and Blue Man Group at the Venetian the second night. David Copperfield was good, kitschy fun, although I think his best days are behind him – he didn’t fly around the auditorium, or saw himself in half with a giant buzzsaw. He did make a car appear from out of nowhere, literally above the heads of two audience volunteers, which was pretty cool. But he padded out his show with video montages of past magic tricks and other self-promotional baloney.

Blue Man Group was terrific, hard to describe if you haven’t seen it. My sixty-year-old dad, who could scarcely be described as an enthusiast of rock-n-roll performance art, and who probably missed most of the musical allusions (to the Sex Pistols, Madonna, and Ozzy Osbourne, among others), and who frequently had his view blocked by giddy audience members who hopped to their feet right in front of us, is still raving about it.

Mon, 26 Jun 2006

Salt Lake City. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir was pretty good. The broadcast didn’t take place in the actual Tabernacle, but in the Latter-Day Saints conference centre across the street. The Tabernacle itself is under renovations to make it earthquake-proof. This is just like the Mormons, earthquake-proofing a building in the least earthquake-prone place in the country. But I’m pretty sure that when an earthquake does hit Utah, five hundred or a thousand years from now, the Mormons won’t waste any time gloating about their undamaged Tabernacle. They’ll just roll up the sleeves on their white dress-up shirts and go to work helping the heathens rebuild their non-earthquake-proof homes. The Mormons are actually kind of cool, in that respect, despite their loopy religious beliefs. I admire their unfailing politeness, their tidy clothes, and their monomaniacal sense of organisation. One might wish they’d loosen up a bit, but you have to bear in mind that they’re less than two hundred years into the history of their religion. At this point in the evolution of Christianity, folks were growing their beards long, taking vows of silence, and living in caves in the desert. Salt Lake City is kind of like that, but at least it has a basketball team.


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